Stealing The Show At U-Md.

"Appropriately" at the Union Gallery features A. Clarke Bedford's "Love Sock." (By A. Clarke Bedford)
By Michael O'Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 10, 2006

Even after I had seen the work, it took me a minute to figure out the significance of the title of "Appropriately: Five Artists Exploring Humor," an exhibition at the University of Maryland's Union Gallery.

Then it hit me. The reference is not to the word pronounced "uh-PRO-pree-ut" (as in "suitable, fit, proper") but "uh-pro-pree-EIGHT" (as in "to take improperly, or without permission"). This becomes clearest when considering the work of A. Clarke Bedford, who has long been one of the cleverest thieves in his field.

The centerpiece of the Union Gallery show, and easily its most humorous component, is a body of work that many may have first seen in a 1997 exhibition at Hemphill Fine Arts. Consisting mainly of various depictions of argyle socks rendered in the style of famous artists and art movements and accompanied by printed copies of a pseudo-scholarly art-historical treatise called "Mettez Une Chaussette La-dedans!" (French for "Put a Sock in It!"), Bedford's installation handily steals the small show.

The artist is a gifted mimic. His impersonations of Gary Indiana, Pablo Picasso, Jasper Johns and others are technically convincing, as is his so-called "Scribble of Tighnabruach," a Neolithic stone carving depicting rudimentary hosiery and repeated diamond-shaped forms. But it is not merely his wicked skill that tickles. It is his gentle puncturing of the pomposity that so often accompanies the study -- and, let's face it, the consumption -- of art.

Bedford's more recent contributions follow a similar path. A series of oversize Pez dispensers, mounted with heads mocking (or are they honoring?) the work of van Gogh, Rodin, Magritte, Brancusi and Duchamp, is equally amusing.

The other four artists play with the idea of appropriation in subtler, and consequently less laugh-out-loud funny, ways. Jonathan Bucci's "Biscayne Bay," for instance, tweaks Christo by replicating, in a miniature 3-D diorama made of deliberately clumsy-looking latex, that artist's famous surrounded-island installation of 1983. It is at once a kind of homage and a deflation of Christo's perhaps over-inflated reputation. R.L. Tillman pokes fun at consumerism and the dangers of junk food with "Coming Soon," an installation parodying a fast-food restaurant, while Mike Geno serves up a platter of kitsch in the form of painted portraits of "celebrities" such as Kim Jong Il and Martha Stewart, each of whose face is pierced with cheap clockworks. Barry Scott's sculptures, on the other hand, several of which resemble flaccid phalli sporting human teeth and baby-doll hands, occupy ground that is both wry and disturbing.

Elsewhere around town, the University of Maryland is represented -- albeit unofficially -- with a second, but just as interesting, show. On view at the Gallery at Flashpoint, "Assimilation/Dissolution: Jeffry Cudlin, Christopher Hoeting and Jefferson Pinder" features, only coincidentally, the work of three of the school's art faculty, all of whom happen to be relatively recent MFA recipients from U-Md.'s art program.

Rather than mount either a standard group show or a traditional collaboration, the three artists of "Assimilation/Dissolution" devised a system whereby they would periodically exchange -- and respond to, with new art -- a series of images created around the themes of gentrification and community identity.

In talking to two of the three artists, it is clear that what began as a kind of call-and-response model along the lines of the surrealist parlor game known as the "Exquisite Corpse" -- and what the show's press materials refer to euphemistically as an "extended conversation" -- soon evolved into a battleground of sorts, as each of the artists struggled to make his voice heard against the visual counter-arguments of his collaborators.

The show itself can be taken two ways: either as a collection of only tangentially related pieces, or as a single body of work. While the individual artworks are not arranged in any logical order (let alone chronologically), there are apparent points of connection. Recurrent motifs and imagery -- as with a "c" resembling a copyright symbol -- surface and recede.

It is, however, in the way that the show, and its sometimes contentious creation, allude to the larger theme of gentrification, that it is most successful. In a city with many neighborhoods now undergoing a similar kind of evolution, in which gain is often counterbalanced with painful loss and displacement, "Assimilation/Dissolution" is an appropriate metaphor for urban development.

APPROPRIATELY: FIVE ARTISTS EXPLORING HUMOR Through Feb. 17 at the Union Gallery, first floor of the Stamp Student Union, University of Maryland, College Park. 301-314-8493. Open Monday-Saturday 10 to 8. Free.

ASSIMILATION/DISSOLUTION: JEFFRY CUDLIN, CHRISTOPHER HOETING AND JEFFERSON PINDER Through Feb. 25 at the Gallery at Flashpoint, 916 G St. NW (Metro: Gallery Place-Chinatown, Metro Center). 202-315-1305. Open Tuesday-Saturday noon to 6. Free.

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